In the transparent silence of night,

Six poems by Irina Odoevtseva: three from the collection A Russian cultural revival: a critical anthology of émigré literature before 1939, edited and translated by Temira Pachmuss (1981); two from the collection Modern Russian poetry: an anthology with verse translations, edited and translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks (1966); and one translated by Maria Rubins from the book Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon, edited by Katharine Hodgson, Joanne Shelton, and Alexandra Smith (2017).


“I can’t forgive myself —
Though the others I’ve forgiven all —
That in your pernicious fate
I changed nothing,
Helped you in no way,
Failed to protect you from death.

All that your soul requested,
All that it loved here…
I was unable. I could not.

So little warmth on the earth,
So much coldness — and evil!

It seems early to die,
Although there’s nothing to live for,

Nothing and no one.
A surrounding, shoreless ocean
Of my despair —
Despair triumphant.

My tears — not water and salt,
But tears of a widow — blood and pain.

It’s frightening to be alone
But still more frightening — to be with others —
In this gyration of nonsense —
More frightening. More unbearable.

In the transparent silence of night,
Resound, barely audible,
Poems you dictated before death.

Tenth wave of despair.
Darkness.
And a lapse into unconsciousness —
Till tomorrow.”

Source: A Russian cultural revival: a critical anthology of émigré literature before 1939, edited and translated by Temira Pachmuss (1981)


“The heart of another (yours, reader?
Yours, dreamer?
Yours, stranger?)
Beats in my breast,
Growing heavier, more unrhythmical,
Night and day and even in sleep,
Repeating over and over —
Something I don’t understand.

On the wall, the floor, the window —
Silvery moonlight flecks;
And the ringing nightingale song
Of full moon delirium,
Swarthy mugs in the mirrors,
And enchanting, delicate faces —
Blur in the trembling of moon,
Though these are my own reflection,
None resemble me,
But beyond, in the mirrors, like a backdrop,
Terror scatters in sparks.

— Help me! Help!
Far away on the Island of Crete
A labyrinth, a bloodthirsty Minotaur,
And Ariadne’s guiding thread.
There are other threads too —
They will lead you to me —
Seek, oh seek them out!”

Source: A Russian cultural revival: a critical anthology of émigré literature before 1939, edited and translated by Temira Pachmuss (1981)


“Asleep and wide-awake
I live in utter joy.
— I.O.

In an alien land,
An alien family,
An alien auto…
Why am I here?..

Well yes, of course, even
I Once had My land,
My home,
My family,
And my very own black poodle Krak.

All this is true.
But then
When February thunder crashed —
Destruction
and collapse,
A refugees grief and
Seas, no, oceans of tears…
And the fatal question
Why didn’t we stay at home?
By now just a bore — this story
Of us.
Crushed under history’s wheels.
It’s useless to recall
What was. It was, now it’s past,
Overgrown
With weeds of oblivion…

The crystal air of the Pyrenees.
Still more rashly, tenderly
Sighs my heart,
Three thousand meters high,
Where the snow is heavenly blue
Life seems magically new
As when I was nineteen
On the banks of the Neva.

From the cliffs an eagle silently
Winged upward,
And flew up Surely
To the throne of God.

— Stop, moment!
Oh stop and slide
Backward:

To Russia,
To youth,
To Petrograd!

Cry of my heart,
So banal,
Devoid of magic,

For indeed I know
This moment won’t stop,
Or slide backward,
And they won’t return to me —
My country,
My family,
My home,
My black poodle Krak.”

Source: A Russian cultural revival: a critical anthology of émigré literature before 1939, edited and translated by Temira Pachmuss (1981)


“How nice to walk the quay at night! No fuss.
We stroll and we are silent, both of us.

We see the Seine, a tree, and there’s the rising stone
Of a cathedral, and clouds…
We’ll postpone

Our talking till tomorrow, later, aye.
Till day after tomorrow,
till we die.”

Source: Modern Russian poetry: an anthology with verse translations, edited and translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks (1966)


“He had said, «Goodbye, my darling. Maybe
I won’t come back — ever. Time will tell.»
And I walked off down the lane, not knowing
If this was the Summer Park — or Hell.

Silent. Empty. And the gate is, fastened.
But why should I now ever go home?
Stumbling like a blind man, by the black trees,
Somebody in white begins to roam.

She comes closer… till she stands beside me
It s a statue, bright in the moonglow.
She looks at me with her white eyes staring,
And she asks me in a voice turned low:

«What do you think of our trading places?
If a heart is stone, it doesn’t ache.
You will become stone; I’ll be the live one.
Stand there. Here’s my bow and shield. So take.»

All right,» I say — in a good agreement.
Here s my coat and shoes; they’re just your size.»
Then the statue turns her head to kiss me;
I see the white pupils of her eyes.

Then I notice my lips stop their moving.
My heart’s warm beat doesn’t sound at all.
Shield in hand and bow behind my shoulders,
I’m standing on a white pedestal.

Morning… and the early shuffle of the milkmaids.
Children and officials hurry… Add
Rain and weak wind, and the streetcars ringing
All the usual world of Petrograd.

Lord!… O Lord, I realize thin instant:
I can’t stop loving my love, my man.
All in vain I turned into a statue;
Stone can last longer than one’s heart can.

And she’s leaving now — in my red-checkered
Coat — and humming a melodic strain,
While I still stand here — frozen and naked
In the dismal, pelting, autumn rain.”

Source: Modern Russian poetry: an anthology with verse translations, edited and translated by Vladimir Markov and Merrill Sparks (1966)


“Under an electric lamp
With a hysterical smile
and head in the pillow.

A bird brought down by a gunshot,
No, this is only a dream,
A bad dream…

Casino and Nice
And starry firmament.
And yet she is proud
of her riches and herself
And her bitter destiny,
She is so strange,

So pretty and drunk –
And the glass is broken into shards.
–Are you from distant lands?
Do you want to love?
Do you want to live
On this small planet
In sadness and warmth?”

Source: Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry: Reinventing the Canon, edited by Katharine Hodgson, Joanne Shelton, and Alexandra Smith; poem translated by Maria Rubins (2017)


Rock Cliffs by the Sea, Edward Hopper, circa 1916

2 thoughts on “In the transparent silence of night,

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